We are by nature social creatures, seeking out relationships with others and a sense of belonging in the world. When our need for connectedness goes unmet for any reason, we can find ourselves immersed in deep feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Loneliness is more than just being by yourself. Loneliness is a state of being that persists whether you are with others or not. A person can feel alone, isolated and disconnected from others, even in the middle of a party.
Loneliness, while especially notable at this time because of social isolation due to the COVID-19 outbreak, is a far-reaching and pervasive societal epidemic. In a recent January 2020 study by Cigna in which 10,000 American adults were surveyed, the results on loneliness were stunning. The survey found that 61% of respondents, or 3 in 5 adults, reported feeling lonely.
To compound the matter, sometimes feelings of being lonely are accompanied by feelings of shame. We layer this toxic emotion on top of an already uncomfortable feeling because we judge ourselves for our loneliness.
Our culture often signals us that we should be gregarious and extroverted, surrounded by friends and family or socially engaging with co-workers and colleagues.
This perception is influenced in numerous ways, from the television programs and movies we watch, to the social media posts we view of all the apparently wonderful things people are doing and sharing with their companions.
We ourselves can then feel compelled to project the same (though not necessarily authentic) images of living communally active, happy lives.
This dynamic can create a vicious cycle. People who are feeling lonely, and then ashamed for being lonely, are more sensitive to social cues. This, in turn, can make them retreat and withdraw even more, thereby reinforcing and perpetuating their loneliness.
There is an irony to this collective social voice, telling us we should not be lonely. Research shows that the more time people spend on social media, the more they are actually lonely. This is why we should never assume we know what people are experiencing emotionally just by their social media profiles.
The good and hopeful news in all this is that there are many options for things you can do if you feel lonely, regardless of your situation and circumstances. Whether a person’s feelings of loneliness derive from a state of being physically and socially isolated or from a perceived sense of emotional disconnection, there are many ways to combat loneliness and turn it into connection - even connection with oneself.
Practice self care. Taking care of yourself physically can be extremely important when feeling lonely. Exercising daily, eating healthy foods, taking regular showers, and getting good sleep can all contribute to feeling better.
Be mindfully compassionate towards yourself. Being mindful of your feelings, without judgement, to understand what they mean for you and your life can help provide perspective and bolster your self-acceptance. For example, understand that feeling lonely is only a season and that there will be other seasons in your life where you feel more connected to others. Reflect on joyful occasions in your past, and meditate on people who you know love you and care about you.
Turn to creative outlets and hobbies. Drawing, painting, crafting, and playing or listening to music, can all help you connect to a part of your brain that needs to be creative. Exploring a hobby or pastime can inspire a sense of fulfillment and well-being.
Connect with the natural world. Get outside and watch birds, squirrels and people walking in your neighborhood or park. Be observant and note your surroundings - this can help you feel less alone as you realize you are part of a greater community of people and other creatures.
Get a plant…or 2 or 3. Consider getting a plant or some sort of greenery for your apartment or home. Surrounding yourself with organic elements can bring a bit of nature inside and lift your mood. This is especially helpful if going outside regularly is impractical or for some reason challenging.
Adopt a pet. Taking care of and developing a relationship with an animal (i.e. dog, cat, bird, fish, etc.) can give you a sense of responsibility for another being. Moreover, it can provide a true sense of connectedness, minimizing your feelings of isolation and pulling you out of your loneliness.
Contact friends and family frequently. Use available technology to connect to those you know love and care about you. It’s also important to realize that you are not the only one who might be feeling lonely, so reach out to others - even if you don’t always feel like doing so.
Volunteer in your community. Serving others’ needs can help us to switch our focus away from our own feelings of loneliness and insecurity towards the feelings of those around us. When we do something that helps another person, it can offer us a sense of purpose and community connection.
Keep a gratitude journal. Reflect daily on the things in your life for which you are currently thankful, and not on what you don’t have. Review your journal weekly. This can help you develop a framework for a more positive outlook on your daily life.
Talk to a loved one or mental health professional. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings of loneliness with another person. Even if it sharing feels vulnerable, it is important to know that a trusted friend, family member or health professional will take you seriously and be there to help.
Loneliness can lead to increased depression, anxiety and shame. Exploring new and different avenues for connection with yourself and others can help alleviate these kinds of negative feelings and guide you to a healthier mindset and sense of self.
Moreover, as you reach out to others and let them know you are not doing well, you may get a surprising response.
You might realize that others often feel the same way you do and want to talk about it. And most importantly, you might be encouraged by the number of people that respond in a caring, loving manner. In the end, connection is the antidote to loneliness and you are worth it.
- Tom Philp, LPC, CEO
Stonebridge Couples Therapy